A.Eves Cardiffs Re - Upholstery Service.
Advice on whether to buy new or
Ever thought Should I Buy new or old furniture?
Even die hard antique buyers will sometimes steer clear from buying antique sofas and chairs. Maybe it’s the baggy bases, smelly fabric, dangerous looking springs! wobbly legs or even the cloud of dust that engulfs you as soon as you sit down! Non of this bothers me of course, but I can understand the desire for a nice new, clean and fresh sofa, and the ease of buying a new one compared to living with an old decrepit looking thing. But what if you bought an antique sofa, lets say a Victorian one, made about 150 years ago and had it professionally restored to as new condition? Its going to cost of course and the restorer must have experience with antique furniture, but if you’re happy spending a couple of thousand on a good new sofa, You could get an exquisite restored antique one for the same money. You can, as ever, spend hundreds of thousands on antique upholstery, but for now we’ll concentrate on the middle market antique stuff that can compete in price with your new “interest free” (Well who pays the interest then?) mass produced sofa’s.
Where to start.
First of all find a good upholsterer, someone with great experience in reupholster and specifically antique work. There are a lot of wannabe upholsterers who could very easily cost you a fortune to ruin a lovely piece, so please take advice here. Buying antique upholstery isn’t hard. It’s the restoration that is the difficult bit and will possibly cost the most, so again choose wisely your upholsterer.
Auction rooms and dealers shops will have plenty of antique sofas, chairs and chaises to choose from. You’re going to need some imagination to see any potential and any end result in many of these pieces, but it doesn’t take an expert to spot the oozing quality. Just look at the frames, the carving, the detailing, the springing and the construction. These things were definitely made to last in a time before the “throw away” idea was acceptable. The cost of the initial purchase needn’t be too much, it’s the restoration that will be the painful part, but you will have a sofa or chair that if you commissioned to be made today (and finding someone good enough to do it would be very difficult) would cost many times your final investment in the original article. It’ll be a bit like owning a beautifully restored classic car, like the Aston Martins feature in last months edition (well I think so anyway) you’ll own a piece of history, something that you can impress your friends with, it’ll last forever, it’ll turn heads (In the living room anyway) and you shouldn’t do too badly on the investment front either.
An exceptional walnut beautifully carved and quality chaise longue. Again Victorian and made around 1870. Can be quite a state when bought. The original fabric is thread bare, the sprung seat had almost dropped out, and that gorgeous walnut frame was covered in 130 years of grime, once restored you can now see the fantastic original colour of the walnut and the sheer quality of the carvings and turning. All done,dusted, restored and finished in a super fabric, this one will cost £1500 but you’ll never see another!
Smelly old cushions, horsehair and seat springs that flip you backwards and spike you in the rear end for good measure!
Oh, the joys of owning antique upholstery.
Just imagine for a bargain price, you’ve bought yourself an old Victorian sofa with droopy seats and sticky, worn out covers. You bung it in your living room, remembering to place a throw over the worst holes to hide the straw stuffing and invite all your friends and family round for a sofa warming party. I wonder how impressed they’ll be when they go home with red and nasty bumps up their legs (sharp straw and horsehair) ripped pants (A rogue spring), maybe a disturbed mouse hiding in a pocket! Sounds fantastic doesn't it?
So its easy to understand then that even the most die hard antique buyers steer clear of antique sofas and opt to buy new. I suppose it’s so easy to go to your local furniture store, pick your fabric and have a lovely new sofa or chair delivered. I’m not knocking it; part of my business is the making of new sofas and chairs, so I wouldn't dream of cutting my nose off! I’m just saying that there is another way and to my mind one that is actually more interesting and satisfying, although a lot more effort is required, its never cheap and in some cases you might end up waiting a long time.
This other way of course involves an antique sofa, chair or suite. They can be bought unbelievably cheaply, but don't be tempted by that alone. You’ll need a good upholsterer and they really are rare animals. There are lots of so called upholsterers, who’ve spent time in factories mass-producing suites (One man can make up to five three piece suites in a day..Great quality hey) Watch out for these chaps. They might be okay at making stacks of sofa beds, but show them a fully coil sprung 150 year old sofa, with horse hair, straw and a wonderful but loose beech frame all in need of complete restoration and they’ll drop dead! So step number one must be to source your upholsterer. Ask antique dealers, auctioneers or friends to recommend a good one. He must be experienced in, knows and understands antique upholstery. The cost of the restoration and reupholstery will normally and massively out weigh the cost of the sofa or chair.
Lovely Victorian sofas for example can be bought for as little as £200, but might cost five to ten times that amount to restore. So don't be shocked when you get a quote for reupholstery. Only this morning I gave a price to a lady to restore an Edwardian sofa she’d recently bought in the local auction room. My price included some cleaning and polishing to the legs, frame repairs, new feather and down cushions, respringing and reupholstering. Basically this sofa would be in as new condition. The price came to £1150. Well, If only I had a CCTV system, I would have recorded the comical or was it a mortified face? The lady pulled as she stumbled backwards in an effort to get out of the shop as quickly as possible!
I couldn't quite grasp what she was mumbling to me as she exited the building, but I did catch the fact that she’d only paid £75 for the sofa, £1150 was a ridiculous price and she could buy two new sofa’s for less...Do you think she’ll be back?
Once you’ve come to terms with the fact that reupholstery is not cheap and you’ve found your perfect upholsterer, get yourself out on the hunt for your perfect partner (sofa or chair I mean) and make sure that the upholsterer can start and complete your work in a reasonable time scale. Bigger professional restoration companies should be able to turn around your furniture within a month or two. The smaller one-man band types might be less expensive, but will probably take much longer to complete the work. I recommended a customer of mine to contact the Guinness Book of Records after she told me she had once waited six years for an upholsterer to complete a reupholstery of a Georgian chair.
There are always stacks of antique sofas and chairs in every auction room, so this is where you’ll see the largest collection, unless you can get yourself into an antique warehouse. Dealers often have the better pieces and will sometimes restore them before being putting them on display. The problem here is that if you don't like the fabric the shop has chosen for the piece, you’ll have to have it reupholstered again.
So there are lots of place to buy lovely old sofas and chairs. You won’t need too much money to make the initial purchase, but what you’ll need is a great deal of is imagination! If you don't have imagination, then get straight down to the nearest out of town furniture store selling three piece suites on interest free credit (Who pays the interest then?) and let the spotty faced salesman sort you out. But if you do, you’ll be able to see past the general old and dirty appearance. You might not like the old fabric, but you can see past that: the saggy seats with springs poking out of the bottom wont put you off and the very distinctive smell might even be attractive (Or is that just me?)
Once you’ve seen past all the horribleness, you’ll find the shape you like and size that’ll fit perfectly. What you’ll appreciate is the wonderful quality that has kept these things in use for generations. Also realise that although its going to cost some money to bring you ideal sofa or chair back to life, you're going to have a truly unique and characterful piece of furniture that no one else will have, it'll be worth passing on and something you’d have to pay much more than your final investment to commission someone to make in the same way and to the same standards.
Actually then, all things considered, reupholstery isn't expensive. Yes it takes effort to find the right upholsterer, the right piece of furniture and plenty of time trawling around auctions rooms and antique shops. But if you enjoy antiques and the pleasures that come with them, why not go this route next time you need a new sofa or chair. The whole experience will be exciting and possibly frustrating, but something you’ll always remember and I think you’ll really enjoy it.
When buying a piece needing reupholstery
Check the frame as best you can. Some wobbliness is okay as the frame can be repaired and strengthened once all the fabric is stripped off. Watch out though for signs of woodworm. Look under the piece and if you see piles of white dust on the floor, leave it alone as it’s got a bad case of the worms! Don't stop looking yet; Turn the piece over and peel away a bit of the hessian base so you can see the frame. Look for signs of the powdery dust left by munching worms or fresh wormholes (Fresh holes are clean and white apposed to old holes that are dark and aged) the odd hole here and there is fine, it can be treated before the reupholstery. But if there is a lot of wood dust and stacks of holes, leave it alone, it’s not worth the risk. Don't confuse old upholsterers tack holes with wormholes. Wormholes are smaller and not uniformed like upholsterer’s tack holes are. I made a big mistake years ago by falling in love with a gorgeous old sofa.
More in hope than expectation, I striped the sofa to the frame Sadly, the dream sofa I shouldn't have bought began to crumble when the old covering was being removed. Every attempt was made to save the frame, but it was all in vein. I actually witnessed worms leaving their holes hurriedly being chased out by the chemical treatment that was being poured all over the thing (In huge quantities) The frame was eventually pronounced dead on the bench and ended up being burnt in fear of the worms spreading. I watched my purchase cost of over £500 go up in smoke and lost a whole days work .
So all in all a bad experience and one that I shouldn't have had and refuse to have again! So remember, sometimes it pays to take no notice of yourself?
Some Victorian chairs have a metal frame. Watch out, they’ll cost you much more to have reupholstered.
Droopy springs: Any old sofa or chair will need respringing, so don't panic if there are more springs on the floor than on the seat! It’ll all get sorted out.
New seat cushions: New foam blocks; some say ruin the look. Then go for feather or fibre seat cushions.
Staples or tacks The majority of upholsterers use air compressed staple guns. If it’s not a museum piece, it doesn't matter if staples are used. They’re more efficient and do a better job. The only place I insist on having tacks is on the base. It just looks nice if you turn the piece over.
Show wood and polished legs: A lot of antique upholstery has show wood frames or turned wooden legs with castors. If you’re going to reupholster something like this, then make sure the wood gets some attention. Don't have it over polished to make it look new - just touched in, re-coloured and waxed. It still needs to look its age.
Buying an antique armchair
Antique armchairs are fabulous quality, full of character, very comfortable, almost always unique, and incredible value for money.
You can buy a 120-year-old Victorian chair made by a true craftsman from only the best materials for around £50! To buy the same quality new – and let me assure you there are only a handful of companies left who make to this standard – you’d need to be prepared to pay over £2000!
You see, one of the downsides to buying one of these bargain chairs for 50 quid is the material from which they’re made. Horsehair and straw may be some of the best materials to use in chair upholstery, but when the stuff is over 100 years old and you’re sitting on top of it you may be in for some trouble, especially if the chair has been stored in a barn for the past 30 years!Obviously then, we can see that buying antique armchairs has its pros and cons!
Then there is the £50-and-up sector. Auction rooms are probably your best bet, but remember what you’re buying is not really a chair to sit on, but actually the shape, style, and frame of one. The new owner will need to dispose of all the top cover and fillings and have it resprung and rebuilt professionally. Its legs might need re-polishing and their castors might need replacing.Go to a recommended upholsterer. Don't skimp on the price and get it out of your head that you’ve only paid £50 for it. Put a good quality fabric on, or, even better, a nice Scottish leather, and maybe a feather seat cushion. Make sure that they closely examine the frame and do any re-jointing and gluing right then. If you do this, you will have a supreme chair that will last forever. Sadly though, the £50 bargain will now owe you closer to £1000 all done and dusted, but don't worry too much, because that's still about half the cost of a similar quality new one.
Here's a special little job! a young chap came in to the shop with his Vet dads (Who had passed away),
Old army uniform, he didn't want to throw it away but did not know what to do with. I used it to cover an old Parker Knoll chair.
BAM!! He was Over the Moon with pleasure of the result!!!
Buying a restored one
Buying an already-restored antique chair will save you an awful lot of time and effort over finding a beat-up one – and then choosing an upholsterer and waiting for ever to have the job done. The downside here is that you could possibly arrange it more cheaply yourself, but then again, this isn't always the case. A few companies do specialise in finding and restoring antique armchairs. They’re sympathetic in their restorations and employ teams of qualifies upholsterers.
Anyone who has ever been in business will understand that these upholsterers need to be continually employed and kept busy, so holding out for big money on stock items is not good for business. They need to sell quickly and move on to the next restoration project to keep the wages paid, so with a bit of negotiating you can pick up quite a good-value restored chair off the peg and have it delivered the next day. With an already-restored chair, though, you are not going to have a choice when it comes to the fabric covering, as it will never be cost-effective to have it done again just to change the colour. It might be worth asking if you may see any chairs prior to restoration, and if you have a good imagination you can choose your own fabric and have it done to order.
Buying an antique chair in original condition
This is the domain of the seriously good antique dealer. To find an antique chair in its original fabric covering and in super condition is extremely rare. Such a chair is highly desirable, highly sought-after, and normally astonishingly expensive.
I’ll give you a couple of examples.
(1) As I’ve already said, you can buy a Victorian armchair in rough condition and needing restoration for £50. The same chair, found in really fine condition and not needing any work, maybe from a country house sale, and in its original, but nicely worn, brown leather covering might sell for well over £1500.
(2) A Queen Ann wingback chair on cabriole legs dating to the early 1700s will always be expensive, and if I could ever afford one, I’d happily pay the £10,000 or so to own a great, but later re-upholstered, one. That same chair, however, in its original and perfect needlework covering, might be worth £100,000. Shocking, isn't it? And quite confusing, to be honest
Put simply, buying antique armchairs is never going to be as easy as buying something new. There will always be problems to overcome, whether these be having it restored or finding the right chair in the first place.
The upside, though, whether you live in a period house or a minimilistic white box, is that using antiques adds a unique style to your home, whether you have it furnished super-modern or truly traditionally.
It is never cost-effective to buy cheap throwaway furniture only to have to replace it time and time again, and there can be no sense of well-being in owning horrible-quality goods.
An antique armchair has a wonderful feel-good factor. It will not only give great service, but be a great investment, too, in financial terms as well as in terms of character and style – and isn’t it just nice to be different!